The latest pandemic-related shutdowns have Tri-Valley restaurants scrambling to adapt.
As hospital intensive care units fill to near capacity across California, Contra Costa and Alameda counties are both under regional orders from the state to cease in-person dining, patios included. Restaurants say they were just recovering from being on lockdown from March until June, when most counties re-opened with restrictions.
The latest shutdown, “while not entirely unexpected, is depressing and painful for members of the business community,” said Dawn Argula, president of the Livermore Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“Nonetheless, we understand and support the rationale for doing so,” Argula said. “By now, businesses are keenly aware that their return to economic prosperity is intricately tied to our ability to control the COVID-19 virus.”
Todd Utikal owns Sidetrack Bar + Grill in Pleasanton, which has two patios with about 1,000 square feet he said finally started turning a profit again from August through October while the weather was good.
“We were doing great,” said Utikal, who’s been in business for two years. “We were coming back.”
Utikal said November was down about 40% when compared to November 2019, but they were still getting by before the shutdown.
“It’s just been a roller coaster, up and down,” said Utikal.”I think my restaurant will survive, but my employees … I have to look them in the eye and tell them I just can’t give them the hours they need. These people are trying to pay their rent.”
Utikal referenced the recent battle in Southern California between government officials and restaurant owners over what constitutes essential services and whether restaurants spread the virus. The California Restaurant Association has sued the state over the ban, claiming it is being arbitrary and unfair.
A Los Angeles restaurant owner’s video went viral last weekend, showing a film crew’s catering area set up near her establishment’s closed outdoor dining area.
“Tell me that this is dangerous,” said Angela Marsden, the owner of Pineapple Hill Saloon & Grill, showing her space, then panning to the film crew’s set-up “but right next to me – as a slap in my face – that’s safe. This is safe?”
“It’s frustrating when they say it’s our industry that’s causing the problem,” Utikal said. “We were in a place where people were happy to get back out again. Now, they’re still going to gather. But they’ll just do it at someone’s house.”
Delivery services such as DoorDash also help keep people employed, Utikal acknowledged. But the percentage the services take cuts into his ability to pay his own employees.
“They’re taking, pretty much, our margin,” Utikal said. “The gratuities also go to DoorDash, so my servers and people who prepared the meal don’t get anything. We need to make it clear to people that picking up food is the way to go.”
Paul Dhillon, the owner of Extreme Pizza in Alamo, said he’s expecting the latest shutdown to cut business in half. He also used the roller coaster analogy while describing 2020.
“Now the whole thing has started again,” Dhillon said. “I know we’ll survive, because we prepared for it. But a lot of people won’t. We have the best customers. Those people have been there for us.”
Matthew Greco, owner of Salt Craft in Pleasanton, said the latest shutdown halted his restaurant’s “social bubble dinners,” with specialized menus for groups. “All of our parties cancelled – 12 of them, between now and the end of the year, and into January. They’re all cancelled, which kind of sucks. It was the one revenue stream that continued to grow.”
Greco has adjusted with take-out. “The demand has changed rapidly over the past nine months and, while we’re adapting, it’s not easy.”
Salt Craft’s business was already hurting from missing the lunch crowd from nearby companies like Workday. “We hosted a lot of 12-person lunches for random companies,” Greco said, adding that the full-service restaurant model was already becoming unsustainable, even before the pandemic.
“Everyone is in the red right now,” he said. “I guess the goal is to retain the least amount of red. The question is can we get something done in time to save our businesses?”
Restaurants weren’t the only ones feeling positive only to have the shutdown door slammed back at them. Fusion3 Salon — which has locations in Livermore, Pleasanton and Brentwood — closed except for take-home products between March and August. Owner Larry Phillips said they’d built business back to more than 80 percent of normal by the end of November.
“With this shutdown, we have committed to continuing to pay our team’s benefit packages through Jan. 4,” Phillips said. “After that, we’re not sure what will happen and what we’ll be capable of doing. Everyone is furloughed on a fraction of their hours again.”
Fusion3 was able to secure government loans to help cover payroll and other expenses, though Phillips said when considering other factors like lost gratuities, employees likely would’ve been better off taking unemployment benefits.
“We’ve offered help to our team in the form of food, money — even just a chat. But we really worry that some of them won’t have the basics to be comfortable and provide for their own families,” Phillips said. “The emotional stress can be tough for a lot of people.”
Steve Van Dorn, president of the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses need all the help they can get.
“Our message is to continue to ask our community to support our restaurant and retail businesses by ordering take-out food, merchandise and gift cards whenever possible,” Van Dorn said. “Also, check with your favorite restaurant to see if they provide delivery services. This saves the restaurant and the purchaser money.”